Earlier this week, attorneys and staff of The Brad Morris Law Firm PLLC participated in a “Bench and Bar” conference hosted by the Social Security Administration (SSA) Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) in Tupelo. The purpose of the event was to inform participants about recent updates to Social Security disability regulations, as well as share insights between the ALJs who decide disability claims and the attorneys who represent claimants.
At the conference, Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and ODAR staff were joined by attorneys, legal staff and other claimant representatives.
We learned some interesting facts about the current backlog in disability appeals, and we were briefed on some important updates to Social Security disability regulations.
Here are a few highlights of what we learned:
Recent updates to Social Security disability
regulations help local claimants
There are a couple of updates to Social Security disability regulations in particular that will benefit many local claimants in North Mississippi.
Thanks to a recent change in regulations, nurse practitioners are now considered an “acceptable medical source.” This is a long awaited changed for disability practitioners. The simple truth is that a growing plurality of people in rural areas obtain their primary medical care from nurse practitioners in rural health clinics and urgent care clinics.
Previously, opinions from nurse practitioners were not treated as persuasive evidence. Now, opinions from nurse practitioners will be accepted and considered in the disability review process. This may be the most impactful update to Social Security disability regulations in a long time. It will almost certainly increase disability approval rates throughout Mississippi.
The other significant change is more technical in nature. It relates to how ALJs review the medical evidence in a disability file.
Previously, ALJs had to “weigh” the evidence when medical records showed treatment and/or opinions from multiple medical providers. Under the old standard, the records of the treating physician had “controlling weight” when there was no contradictory evidence. When there was contradictory evidence in the claimant’s file, the ALJ had to “weigh” the evidence. Now, ALJs will employ a three-part analysis instead of weighing the evidence. The judge will just state whether a medical opinion: 1) is supported by objective evidence; 2) is consistent with other evidence; and, 3) whether the judge finds the opinion persuasive.
We believe the combination of these two changes will benefit claimants here in North Mississippi.
Local disability claims statistics
Tupelo ODAR currently has more than 5,000 pending disability appeals. With only nine judges, that roughly translates into a backlog of more than 550 active disability claims per ALJ.
Resources in the local ODAR office are stretched thin. The judges and staff in our region work hard to process claims efficiently and fairly, but the caseload is simply more than they can handle at current staffing levels.
On average, claimants with appeals at Tupelo ODAR wait approximately 20 months from the time an appeal is filed until the hearing is held.
Much at stake in each disability claim
The average disability claim results in more than $300,000 in lifetime benefits, so a lot is at stake when ODAR decides each claim.
For an individual claimant, a disability ruling is often life changing, whether good or bad.
So, it is important to get it right for both the agency and the claimant. A wrongful denial causes years of delay and suffering for a legitimate claimant; alternatively, approval without merit costs taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Social Security Disability judges
are graded on wait times
Administrative Law Judges are graded on the age of their disability claims.
In other words, an ALJ is dinged during performance reviews for claims that have been sitting on their docket for a long time. The ALJs are sensitive to this fact. They want claim files to be worked up, so they are able to make a decision on the claim.
Better approval odds with an attorney
One of the disability judges made the following statement at the conference:
“We have a lot of unrepresented claimants in North Mississippi, and we have a lot of claimants with legal representatives. What I can tell you is that the claimants with a legal representative gets approved at a far higher rate than those who are not represented by counsel.”
There is a lot of pressure to process claims quickly, and there is a lot of pressure to get it right.
These factors create incentive for ALJs to prioritize claims that are fully developed and properly documented.
Attorneys help claimants develop and properly document their claims. Disability attorneys are familiar with SSA regulations. Attorneys want the claims to move as quickly as possible, so the attorney and the claimant can get paid.
As a result, disability claims move faster and get approved at higher rates when represented by counsel.
With the current backlog of disability cases in Northeast Mississippi, you need professional representation on your claim if you are seeking disability benefits. It is foolish to go at it alone.
The Brad Morris Law Firm PLLC
can help with your disability claim
Call or email The Brad Morris Law Firm PLLC today to schedule a FREE CONSULTATION on your Social Security disability claim.